The “Haute Route”, which connects the Mont Blanc massif with the Matterhorn, is one of the most legendary ski touring routes in the world. From Chamonix, France, to Zermatt, Switzerland, this adventure requires a good level of backcountry skiing and physical preparation. Keep reading for some key tips to make the most of your experience!
What’s so special about Chamonix Zermatt?
This route has a special aura to it; most people familiar with Alpine activities have heard about it and dream of some day doing it. The Haute Route connects two of the Alpine capitals of the world, crossing the heart of the Alps.
It takes you from western Europe’s highest mountain, the Mont Blanc, to one of the world’s most famous peaks, the Matterhorn, which can be easily identified because of its pyramidal shape.
Along the way, the beauty and magnificence of more than 20 glaciers are revealed, countless slopes challenge the adventurer and ever changing landscapes await you. A high altitude feeling surrounds the whole expedition, attracting snow junkies from all over the world.
Ryoko, from Japan, is one of many who considers the Chamonix – Zermatt route a ‘dream’; “ever since I first saw harnessed ski mountaineers walk out of the darkness of Aiguille du Midi station onto the bright and exposed snow ridge, and down towards the expanse of glaciers”… “But the experience of the actual tour was much more special, with the breathtaking views of the soaring mountains all around, and that belittling and humbling feeling I got on a massive glaciated field with no other people in our views.”
The Haute Route’s accessibility is yet another one of its virtues. Chamonix is just an hour away from Geneva, by car or transfer. Once you get to Zermatt, you can either take a transfer back to Chamonix, or take a transfer or train to Geneva.
Are you ready to ski tour the “Haute Route”?
According to Hervé, one of Explore Share’s registered guides, the Haute Route is more challenging than most people think. Why?
- Some of the terrain is quite technical: some of the slopes are steep, the snow conditions are always different, there might be moguls, there are crevasses, and rocks along the way.
- Each day, you climb 4 to 5 hours and ski around 3 hours.
- It is a week long, which is a considerable amount of time for such demanding activities.
To be able to undertake this fascinating challenge successfully, you should be physically and psychologically prepared. You also need to be experienced in ski touring, having done other ski tour routes before. There are certain kick turns that are difficult, that’s why you must feel confident and skillful. And of course, as Hervé points out, you should be a good skier and be able to ski in snow of all conditions, let it be ice, crust, slush, hard pack, crud or powder, on slopes of up to 40º.
Although the guide who takes you will help you find out if you’re ready or not, it is mainly up to you to judge your fitness level correctly: be honest and patient, if you don’t feel prepared, the mountains won’t go away!
Most of us get excited and want to go straight to the most well-known and challenging peaks. But as Hervé says, mountaineering is more than summits and big names!
How to get prepared for Chamonix Zermatt
Training is possible (and fun!) even if you don’t live in a mountainous area, you just need to use your imagination to work out the key parts of your body for ski touring: your core, hips, back, legs and ankles. It’s important to improve your endurance and train your strength. From climbing stairs, to using ankle weights (to strengthen your hip muscle), the possibilities are countless.
Once you’re ready to roll, and before heading to the real thing, Hervé suggests two days of preparation, ski touring in any of the following destinations:
- The Gebroulaz, at the Three Valleys (or Trois Vallées)
- La Vanoise and la Maurienne
- Ski touring around the Refuge de la Vanoise
- The Mont Blanc Massif and the Aiguilles Rouges Massif
- The Ecrins Massif
- The Queyras valley
The best time to ski the Haute Route is between mid March and mid May. Huts are open and with staff during that period of time. You’re more likely to get powder snow during March and the beginning of April. Whereas from mid April onwards you have a higher chance of getting Spring snow.
If you go with a group, it should include 6 people at the most (including yourself). However, Hervé anticipates that if he doesn’t know the skiers well, he prefers a maximum of 4 people, in order to take care of them correctly and maximise security.
The gear and equipment you take with you is crucial, don’t forget the following:
- Crampons and ski crampons,
- a harness,
- avalanche safety gear: a beacon, a probe, and a shovel,
- an ice axe,
- appropriate clothing,
- an airbag (depending on the snow conditions),
- and last but not least, your skis, skins, boots, bindings, rucksack and poles!
In case you don’t own one or more of these items, you may rent and/or buy them in Chamonix. You should spare at least one day for testing the equipment, before your adventure begins.
It is crucial that you keep your rucksack as lightweight as possible. Hervé suggests no more than 12 kg. The guide will also take ropes, an ice screw, and a first aid kit.
Choosing a guide
The guide you go with makes all the difference. He or she will keep you safe, help you in case of trouble, advise you, help you make the most of your adventure, make the whole experience more fun for you, and guide you on how to overcome difficulties.
The guide can teach you interesting facts like peak names, as well as crevasse rescue techniques and navigation skills. That’s why choosing a guide is a big part of this deal! Also, you should book in advance so as to make sure the guide you pick is available.
The truth is that your guide and group will be a big part of your enjoyment, plus, the guide could turn out to be a good photographer! You might end up with more photographic memories with the group you travel with.
Ryoko points out that “the best part was also that I got to share this experience with a group of people – friends, guides, etc – that got very close by the end of the trip.” And with those friends, food is generally a must… “this was topped off with the oh-so-satisfying Rösti for lunch and three course meals for dinner at mountain huts, sometimes with a very good selection of beers and wines!”
All roads lead to Zermatt
Once you leave Chamonix, and having Zermatt as the finish line, there are many roads you can take. To investigate some of the options, you can read the book “Haute Route Chamonix Zermatt: ski touring” by Didier Lavigne and Francois Damilano. It has very good details on each of the main routes, and can help you choose your route!
Herve’s option takes you to some awe inspiring spots as the col du Chardonnet, the Saleinaz glacier, the col Roux… You also get to ski down the val d’Arpette, traverse above the Lac des Dix, and spend the night at the fantastic Bertol cabin, among many of the surprising places you’ll get to visit. For more details on Herve’s program, click here.
Get your skins and get going!
Last but not least, keep in mind that the Chamonix Zermatt Haute Route can be done walking too, which is also a fascinating experience.